Learning How to Climb a Different Mountain

I’ve been a visitor to Denali National Park since 1975 and each time I approach the entrance, I feel a strange elation–for I’ve learned from experience, anything can happen here. This vast wildness fuels the wild naturalness in me. I both relax into the letting go of all my roles in life as I pass the final checkpoint at Savage River and then tense with the excitement what may happen here where I’m not in control–where beauty may overwhelm me or wildlife thrill me or an awakening may come here just being close to Denali itself.

Once I literally bumped into a moose as I hiked through a thick spruce forest during the rutting season. My partner was calling for the bull, but instead we bumped into one of his harem, eyes red, hormones flowing. I was so close I looked up into her nostrils that were flaring, ears laid back and eyes wide open. She didn’t move, but she huffed, her breath hitting my face. I didn’t move either. I stared into her fear and confusion and she into mine. Then I backed away, saying soothing words, “There, there, momma, so sorry, so sorry,” and she granted me the mercy of standing still while I backed away. She could have stomped me down, but instead we were wild and close.

I once saw caribou in the rain on the Toklat River so near I felt I could be part of the migration. I still remember that bend in the wide braided river where they were moving to an ancient rhythm that I couldn’t sense. But I felt their purpose and a kind of wisdom old and slow. Their eyes shifted to take me in as I sat and sketched them. A pause. And then a continued slow, undeterred walk to the inner siren that moved them one and all down that gray slate river, leaving me behind and just a little desolate.

And once I saw the rare jaeger, hovering about the muted green tundra. The bus driver stopped and jumped up out of excitement to point it out to the six of us on the nearly vacant bus. It was raining hard, yet just then, in that very moment, the clouds parted and a shaft of sun spotlighted the rare and beautiful bird as it searched for sustenance, glistening and sparkling in the raining sun; and for a few moments I did not know I was a soggy tired body in a bus. I was the rain and the sun and the ferocious intent of that bird.

And once I was making noise as I walked up Tattler Creek, the creek making almost as much noise gurgling and chuckling and most likely gossiping as was its namesake, when a golden grizzly broke out of the alders and brush up above me. She had heard me and chose to give me my leave. How humbling when she was the queen of this place. With one swat, she could have barreled over me, impatient with the intrusion. But she showed me compromise. Her body moved effortlessly up the steep side of the canyon, body golden and flowing, her head and legs a dark brown. I began to breathe again, felt my aliveness.

And this was the place I first climbed a real Alaskan mountain. I was helping out with a sheep survey with a biologist friend of mine. We were on our way up to count Dall sheep on Igloo Mountain. It was thus the first time I also learned about how to weave my way through alders, which always seem to be at the base of the mountain. If you fight them, they will fight you back. But if you go slowly and feel the branches and where they give, you can almost feel elegant in the process. The slope suddenly steepened after breaking through the alders and I couldn’t stand up anymore. With my hands clutching for a hold and my feet searching for purchase, each step was an effort. Lungs burning and calves aching, I was taking big steps to keep up, but then my partner whispered, “Small steps, small steps.” I adjusted. I felt the rightness of this rhythm. Small steps changed my breathing, and I felt the needed surrender to the terrain. We climbed and traversed until near the top, the slope eased and we were in the wonder of alpine flowers–dryas octopetala, moss campion, pink pincushion, dwarf harebells–all clinging to a scratch of tundra. It was here at the very top that the Dall rams abide. We could follow their narrow trail, marked with tufts of white hollow hair and little balls of scat. At one point, I made the mistake of looking down. Only six inches of trail kept me from plunging a couple thousand feet down a rocky slope. I wavered. But I was already on the trail. My only choice was to do as I had done. To focus on what was right in front of me and take another step. We found those Dall rams, crawling on our bellies, slowly, taking our time. The thrill of seeing those regal animals on that mountain top altered my soul.

This altering of soul I remember– climbing that mountain and the wildness of that park– as I now live in wild times, when anything could happen. And yet I’m not relaxed and there is not the same anticipation as I had visiting Denali. What I’m learning now is how to climb the mountain of uncertainty that comes with having my dear soul sister so ill with metastatic cancer. And if not insult enough, during a pandemic. It’s unimaginable not to be able to be by her side, not able to give her a hug or hold her hand. And after 9 weeks of chemo-induced vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, brain fog, and insomnia, it wasn’t worth it. It didn’t work. It didn’t work. On now to the experimental treatment. The journey stretches out ahead dark and unknowable. A narrow trail with lots of exposure. How am I to be with her? It’s like climbing a mountain– through thick alders, struggling up a steep slope, finding it hard to breathe, wavering with gut-wrenching fear. So these old old lessons arise as I hold the memory of that first ascent of Igloo Mountain. Old wisdom is what I need now. Maybe that is why it comes back to me–learning how to climb this unnerving mountain has me staggering. The mountain says, “Move with the same elegance through obstacles, sensing the way through.” I know on one hand this wisdom holds true. It’s exactly what I need to do. But I’ve barely broken through the alders of this mountain. Really, I want to just scream, throw things and demand a better explanation from whoever God is in this.

I got to see her last night–on her back deck, both of us with masks on, 10 feet apart. She wearing her blue cap to keep her bare head warm and me in my turban, trying to imagine no hair. She’s thinner. She’s reflective, grateful and gracious as always–still pays great attention to detail, still loves to talk about her grandchildren, still brightens with creativity. Others have gathered too to wish her well, make prayer flags, dance in her labyrinth while she watches and we all howled. We are her wolfpack. It’s good, I tell myself. This is enough. This moment. This laughter. This joy. This deep connection. But in my car on the way home, I feel a little desolate.

I’ve had some nausea since I first learned about it 10 weeks ago. It does make me sick. I’ve learned to say those same soothing words to myself as I said to the moose when I’m torn open, “There, there, I know, so sorry, so sorry.” I’ve backed away from the brute force of my friend’s reality at times, but I’ve never been in denial. In fact, I am what they say, “preparing myself.” Oh yes, there are “flowers” of defiant, rugged beauty along the way, delicate and hardy as those alpine flowers. I’ve seen love in the tenderest of ways that tip me back to balance and hope. The new treatment seems to be helping. I’ve seen some miracles. But I’m just starting up that steep slope, breathing hard, aching, reciting my mantra, “small steps, small steps.” Finding my way to the top.

View near the top of Igloo Mountain, looking across to Cathedral Mountain in Denali National Park 9/19

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